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Education may be the most essential need in an average Indian household after roti, kapda and makaan. Indian folklore is inundated with depictions of parents sacrificing their all in pursuit of good education for their children. But what, really, is “good education”? There would be several measures, one of which surely is grabbing a seat at one of the hallowed Indian Institutes of Management or IIMs. Why? Because only a very small fraction of India’s best young minds get there. Some estimates suggest there are only about 5,000 seats in India’s 20 IIMs combined, whereas the number of CAT applicants was 250,000 in 2022, up 11 per cent from 2021. That’s 2 per cent of the applicants, never mind the overall student population that qualifies to apply.
Appreciated globally for their quality, the IIMs have been regarded as a seat of excellence through the decades, nurturing the crème-de-la-crème of India’s student population. The IIMs practically guarantee a life of recognition, respect and riches for their graduates. But more importantly, they shape their outlook towards life, career, and everything else in between, in the process creating some of the best corporate leaders and entrepreneurs this country has seen. So critical are they to India’s management ‘identity’ that the IIMs were declared institutions of national importance by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (now the Ministry of Education) in 2017.
We chat up with seven of these leaders, distinguished alumni from India’s three leading IIMs—IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore and IIM Calcutta. These men and women have founded pioneering companies, led giant corporations, nurtured young entrepreneurs, and launched generation-defining products and services, among other things. For some, those were the “two defining years” of their lives, while for others, IIMs gave them everything—first customer, first investor, even life partner. In those hallowed corridors, they grew an appetite for hustle and risk-taking, learnt to build things and leverage networks, and got acquainted with the rich diversity of India.
These are stories of inspiration, and worthy of emulation.
Serial entrepreneur K. Ganesh, known for his early successful bets on some of India’s most innovative internet companies, always wanted to do an MBA. For him, that was “a passport to a good high-paying job in the corporate sector”. Hailing from a middle-class family in Delhi, Ganesh saw his mother, a government servant, toil hard, and was sure that he didn’t want to get into that. “An MBA was the only way to guarantee a good job. The benefits of it are disproportionate,” he says.
As a mechanical engineer, Ganesh worked on the shop floor of Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) in the early 1980s. It soon became clear to him that two years of management education would give him a 15-year head start. “There was a clear distinction between engineers and management students at TELCO [now Tata Motors]. The level, the salary, the position was much higher after [doing an] MBA,” he says. A year later, Ganesh made it to the 20th batch of IIM Calcutta (IIMC) along with his future wife and business partner Meena Ganesh. Even today, IIMC’s alumni website proudly features them as “the husband-wife duo with a 100 per cent success rate in the start-up world”.
IIMC did make a difference. For the first 15-20 years, Ganesh worked in IT and telecom companies, including HCL (as Shiv Nadar’s executive assistant) and Bharti British Telecom (where he reported to Sunil Bharti Mittal). “I became more ‘employable’ because of a top-tier management education,” says Ganesh. “It gave me confidence and a safety net to start my entrepreneurial career. Even if the venture didn’t work out, I could always go back and get a top-level job at a corporation.” He didn’t need to go back. His pioneering edtech company TutorVista, which he founded in 2006, was sold to Pearson for a reported Rs 1,000 crore in 2013.
In the years that followed, Ganesh and Meena made enviable bets on new, emerging online businesses—bigbasket, Portea Medical, BlueStone, Homelane, FreshMenu, Housejoy—through their entrepreneurship platform GrowthStory.in. “Don’t be afraid to take risks and pursue the less trodden path. Outcomes will be multiple times larger if you rise above your normal routine in whatever you do,” says Ganesh. Apart from his day job as an entrepreneur, Ganesh now teaches the ‘New Age Business Models’ course as an Adjunct Professor at IIM Bangalore. He laments the lack of focus on entrepreneurship in B-schools, and says the course content is “steeped in old-age management practices. Upgrading the course to meet today’s start-up environment is the need of the hour”, he says.
Interesting footnote: he recalls his first visiting card, which read “from IIM Calcutta”, instead of his company name or designation. “It just helped build credibility and trust in the customer,” he says. It figures.
Founder and Chairman
“A business school degree is always useful and coveted; it helps you get a more holistic and well-rounded perspective of all aspects of business,” says Nirmal Jain, Founder of IIFL Group, which today includes IIFL Wealth, IIFL Finance, IIFL Securities and 5paisa.com. Indeed, when Jain entered the stock markets in 1995, all he was armed with was his educational qualifications and a few years of work experience in the FMCG space with HUL. Jain was part of the IIM Ahmedabad batch of 1989 and attributes much of his success to his years at the management school, although he is a rank-holder Chartered Accountant and a Cost Accountant as well. “I became an all-rounder after IIMA,” says the first-generation entrepreneur. “I got a holistic perspective of all aspects of business and also understood the importance of teamwork and interpersonal skills.”
Jain entered the stock markets at a time when the arena was dominated by traditional broking firms; professionals were few. Equity research and websites—Jain launched his online trading platform in the year 2000—were not very common even as the markets were just starting to open up in the post-liberalisation era. Interestingly, Rashesh Shah, who founded another new-age entity in Edelweiss Group, is Jain’s batchmate and entered the stock markets around the same time.
Meanwhile, IIFL, which started as an equity research company in 1995, has transformed into a diversified financial services firm whose listed entities command a valuation of over Rs 32,000 crore and has assets under management worth more than Rs 5 lakh crore. “The IIM degree helped me a lot because in entrepreneurship, one has to have an understanding of all aspects of business from accounts to human resources to sales to marketing. The IIMA degree allowed me to have an understanding of all aspects of business, which helped me to scale up,” he says.
Jain acknowledges the fact that the alumni network of a B-school like IIMA does help not only in scaling up the business but also in various other ways. “I benefitted a lot from my friends and alumni network at IIMA. This included opening doors to helping in consummating business deals to contributing to charitable causes. Across the world, the network is very helpful,” he says.
However, Jain is clear that the degree alone cannot be looked upon as a panacea. “All the courses I attended could not prepare me for the challenges thrown by real life and how to manage a crisis, especially during troubled times… The key to success, however talented and intelligent you are, depends on the three Hs—hard work, humility, and honesty,” says Jain.
Founder & Executive Vice Chairman
“A B-school education has helped me a lot in life,” says 59-year-old Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Founder and Executive Vice Chairman of Info Edge, which owns job portal Naukri.com, matrimonial site jeevansathi.com, real estate portal 99acres.com and education portal shiksha.com. An alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, Bikhchandani says his PGDM (Post Graduate Diploma in Management) not only provided him with knowledge and equipped him with various skills, but gave much more. “It instilled in me an attitude that helped me a lot later in life. Whether it is managing a very high workload, meeting deadlines or having a certain benchmark for excellence—these are intangible but they help you in life,” says the start-up investor.
Bikhchandani, who also owns stakes in online food delivery platform Zomato and insurance marketplace Policybazaar.com, adds that while a B-school education is significant, there are some things that cannot be taught in a classroom. “There is a lot that you learn in life which is of a very practical nature, and you only learn that by experience. It is somewhat unrealistic to expect that it will be taught in a classroom.”
While over the years, the IIM alumni network has helped Bikhchandani in his entrepreneurial journey, he says it wasn’t as if networking was a priority. “When we went to B-school, networking wasn’t such a big deal. You went there for the knowledge, for the intrinsic value of the MBA.” However, he admits that having the IIMA brand does help. “Of course, along the way the network helps… very often passively without you realising it. Some doors open for you easier than they would have if you did not have that IIMA tag,” he says. Even today, in the post-pandemic world, a degree from a high-quality place that “actually pushes you, and you work hard on it”, is something that is sought after.
Bikhchandani’s advice for budding B-school aspirants is to “engage, immerse and work hard”. He suggests that they do a wide variety of courses and not focus on only one area or discipline. “Don’t believe you are a specialist. You should pass out as a generalist and then specialise when you are doing a job,” he says. For those wanting to follow the entrepreneurial route, Bikhchandani has only one piece of advice: “You have to have a very high bias for action to get things done.”
Chairman and CEO
An alumnus of the 1987-89 batch of IIM Calcutta, Sumant Sinha, Chairman and CEO of ReNew Power, credits his alma mater for providing him with a sense of purpose by motivating him to work on solutions that could help bring about a tangible, positive impact. “I recall having late-night chats with friends where we would all rack our brains on business ideas and what kind of revenues each business model could bring,” he says.
One of three children of India’s former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, Sumant Sinha would dream of working for the benefit of the broader community while growing up. Later on, IIMC instilled in him the confidence to sail uncharted waters. After working with well-known brands like the Tata group, Citicorp Securities, ING Barings, Aditya Birla Group and Suzlon Energy, he launched ReNew Power in 2011. “B-school education instilled in me the sense of confidence needed to face any odds, which helped in a big way to turn my dream of doing something for India’s renewable energy into reality at a time when the sector wasn’t even at the embryonic stage,” says Sinha.
The success stories of his fellow IIMC alumni inspire him to strive harder each day. At the same time, he feels that given the huge challenges around climate change, socio-economic inequality, and lack of nutrition for millions, businesses today are evolving beyond just ensuring a healthy balance sheet. “It cannot just be about bottom line and growth projections for business leaders... CEOs and CXOs must be acutely conscious of the world around them and, where they can, act accordingly,” asserts Sinha.
Alluding to the challenge often faced by new entrepreneurs in raising financing for their ventures, Sinha feels it would do well for B-schools to prepare students for this scenario. “I believe even the world’s best institutions can’t really teach this as it all depends on a person’s perseverance and passion to build and grow a business or fructify an idea,” Sinha says. He believes that despite a changing socio-economic and geopolitical world, B-school education will never lose its relevance. “B-schools can guide students on how to make decisions in situations where there is fluidity and all factors are not known,” he says, adding, “Life will teach them the rest!”
Sinha leaves us with a word of advice for B-school aspirants. “Always set intermediate goals in life. The bigger vision is the destination, but the smaller goals are very much needed to lead a balanced life,” he says.
Founder & Chairman
Journey of Learning
In 1992, when he was sitting for his final exams at IIM Ahmedabad, Deep Kalra never thought he would turn entrepreneur. “I was going to chase a professional career and if the internet hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would have started a company,” recalls the Founder and Chairman of online travel firm MakeMyTrip. In hindsight, one of the things he wishes his B-school had given him was more entrepreneurship courses and industry interactions. Being away from metro cities in Ahmedabad didn’t help. But what did help is the fact that a B-school, he says, provides one with a well-rounded education essential for any kind of career. The second thing is that it “gives you the requisite skills to tackle new situations that help you go down uncharted territories”, he adds.
He calls himself a big beneficiary as well as a benefactor of the IIM alumni network. Whether it was a situation about hiring the right person for an executive role or a dilemma about where to list his company, his network always came in handy.
Like most things in life, MBA education, too, is in a state of flux after the pandemic. Kalra says that even before the pandemic, people started questioning the value of an MBA. “What changed this perception was that more online education portals and professional courses are now widely available, and people have started weighing the benefits of doing such a course while working. And I think, technology has brought about that change,” he says.
For MBA aspirants, Kalra has a word of advice: always ask yourself why you want to go for an MBA, is it just for the degree or will it actually help you achieve your goals, or learn more about courses on new technologies like cryptocurrency. “It’s unfair to expect your business school to prepare you for future technologies. I did my MBA in 1992; there was no way I could learn about the internet then,” he says.
Even while hiring for his company, Kalra is cognizant of the fact that MBAs would only serve certain roles. He’s had hires from humanities, engineering and other undergraduate backgrounds depending on the role. He says his hiring decisions are based on an MBA degree if a role requires managing large teams or stakeholders, and/or growing a business. “When we’re hiring, we want MBAs in certain functions but not everywhere. For revenue management, for example, an MBA is helpful. But if it’s just product management, which is a large part of what we hire for, it is not critical,” he says.
Leader of Impact
Rajiv Srivatsa and his IIMB batchmate Ashish Goel disrupted India’s unorganised furniture retail market with UrbanLadder, a vertical e-commerce platform, in 2012, at a time when most players were chasing horizontal e-commerce a la Flipkart. Nearly eight years later, Srivatsa moved on to become a full-time venture capitalist at Antler India. Both his present and last role are a far cry from his maiden job as a software engineer in Infosys in 2000. A “cocooned” techie from Chennai, Srivatsa may have never become an entrepreneur if not for the two “best years” of his life at IIMB. “I was a very introverted and studious kid, and had never stayed outside Chennai. The moment I came to Bengaluru and interacted with people from different backgrounds and cultures, my exposure became larger,” says Srivatsa.
After earning his MBA in 2004, Srivatsa—a self-confessed coding geek—continued to work in the IT and tech industry, with stints at Cognizant and Yahoo India. Though he turned entrepreneur in 2012, the ‘build something’ bug had bitten him while on campus at IIMB. Srivatsa shares, “I used to code a lot back then. I built out IIMB’s intranet service (Spidi), which had over a thousand daily active users (DAUs) at that time. I saw the impact it created and the way I could technologise the entire campus and connect people. One of my inspirations was Mark Zuckerberg, who was also building Facebook from his college dorm around the same time.
IIMB had a critical role to play in UrbanLadder’s journey. “Our first customers, first investors, initial word of mouth… pretty much all of it was through IIMB alumni networks. It was a very powerful network for sure,” Srivatsa reveals. Interestingly, just before starting up, Srivatsa was also “considering a job” at Flipkart, the poster child of India’s start-up economy. “I’d interviewed for a role there. The Bansals [Sachin and Binny] were a big inspiration then,” he says.
However, he laments the fact that there’s barely any encouragement for entrepreneurship in campuses. “Right after the degree, all the focus is on placements,” he says. He adds that IIMs (and most educational institutions in India) don’t prepare students to deal with failure. “Mental health and therapy must be brought into these top B-schools because the competition there is much more,” he opines. “Leadership training happens at IIMs, but happiness training doesn’t happen.”
Is the hallowed IIM degree losing its relevance in the modern day, when students have a plethora of offline and online options to choose from? “Well, if you get a top-tier MBA, it is still worth it. But behavioural skills get better in a real job,” says Srivatsa.
Co-founder & CEO
Sweet and Strong
Vineeta Singh made news as an IIMA grad in 2006, when she turned down a Rs 1-crore job offer from Deutsche Bank. Back then, it was unheard of for global investment banks to offer associate-level roles to IIM freshers. The Deutsche Bank offer was, in fact, on par with those made to grads of global B-schools like Harvard. However, 23-year-old Singh, a self-confessed “fan” of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson in those days, stuck to her goal of becoming an entrepreneur. Sixteen years on, as one of the most promising internet entrepreneurs of the country today, she—along with her husband Kaushik Mukherjee—runs SUGAR Cosmetics, a D2C beauty brand valued upwards of $500 million. “I would never have had the guts to start up had it not been for my B-school education. I went to IIMA because I had an ambition to start a company. It was the only B-school at that time to offer a programme on leadership and entrepreneurship,” she says.
Singh graduated in 2007 after having been a top-performing student, a popular inter-college badminton player, and the Head of IIMA’s Alumni Cell. She holds each experience dear to her heart. “My co-founders in both the businesses I started [SUGAR and FabBag], my husband, and some of the most key people in my life… I met at IIMA. Everyone was inspirational and had the ability to hustle,” she says. IIMA taught her to take risks. “I learnt how moonshots can make a difference to your entire career trajectory.” Today, not only is she a distinguished alumna, but IIMA also recognised her success by instituting a case study on SUGAR in its marketing programme. “The ‘case method’ of teaching allows IIMA to not be as outdated as some of the other colleges. And for a 60-year-old institution to be in touch with the times is phenomenal,” she says.
But is there something she wished B-school had taught her? “Well, no institution in India teaches you [how] to deal with failure,” she says. “And those life skills often end up mattering more than the technical skills.” Singh also laments the lack of real-world exposure in the IIM curriculum. “There wasn’t as much focus on creating businesses, selling stuff, meeting customers, etc.,” she says, adding that institutes need to figure out how businesses of the future can be built. “Bring in courses on fintech, influencer marketing and backend infrastructure. It cannot be just brand, brand, brand.”
One of her role models, Falguni Nayar, is a fellow IIMA alumna. “Just seeing a woman from your college go on to build a fantastic business is amazing,” she says of Nayar, who founded Nykaa, which today competes with SUGAR in the online beauty commerce space.
Story: Sohini Mitter with Team BT
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